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Production Designer Jack Fisk: Crossing the Line and Coming Back

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Production designer Jack Fisk loves filmmaking, “I would probably do what I was doing even if I wasn’t getting paid because it’s so much fun,” he says. Fisk crossed the line into directing, but lately he’s been back again in the art department. Here he shares with Below the Line his unique perspective of what the filmmaking process looks like from both sides.Starting his career in the art department because “I feel most comfortable there,” Fisk’s first art director credit was on the Jonathan Demme-penned and produced exploitation biker flick, Angels Hard as They Come (1971).Since then Fisk’s talents have been tapped by some noted directors. He was credited as crew on David Lynch’s first film, a four-minute animated short titled Six Figures Getting Sick (1966), and went on to design Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and The Straight Story (1999). He also worked as art director for Brian De Palma on Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Carrie (1976).Fisk tried for years to get into the Art Directors Guild, but was stymied by a catch-22 in the rules. That didn’t stop him from working non-union. Established art directors at the time wanted to work in the comfort of the studios, and Fisk was out in the elements. He had very little competition and was able to work as much as he wanted. “I had great projects, but no money,” recalls Fisk. “I had a truck and tools and would design sets, build them, dress them and prop them like a one-man band. I love the passion of independent films. I like when you feel like a big family doing a film… everybody’s chipping in.” Seven years later Fisk finally got into the union when he worked as art director on Movie Movie (1978) for Stanley Donen. Fisk’s projects with director Terrence Malick are career landmarks. Their first collaboration was in 1973 on Malick’s breakout film, Badlands. The dramatization of the 1950s killing spree by a teenage girl and her twenty-something boyfriend in the Dakota badlands raised Fisk’s profile as a creative talent. The film also introduced him to his future wife, Sissy Spacek. He worked again with Malick on Days of Heaven in 1978. Malick’s 20-year hiatus after that film almost exactly coincides with the period Fisk left the art department and turned to directing.The talents that Fisk nurtured as a production designer and art director translated well on the directorial side. “I think that in art direction and production design you’re trying to create environments for the actors that seem real and make them more comfortable,” says Fisk. “As a director I was trying to make the actors more comfortable. I’m married to an actress and I know that it was always easier for her the more complete the environment was. You want to give them support so they feel free to take chances and express themselves.”Fisk was drawn to directing because it seemed he would be able to control more of the project, but it was hard to get a film off the ground. A film prepped for over a year could fall through, and eventually it would be time to move on to the next project. Fisk felt that he was always shopping, trying to make deals. “I think if I could write, I’d love to direct, but since I was directing material that I hadn’t written, I wasn’t as complete a filmmaker as I could have been.”He was attracted to scripts with strong female characters. “My father died when I was three and I was always impressed by my mother’s strength raising three kids in a small town in Illinois. I admire people who overcome obstacles. That’s what I liked about Raggedy Man (1981).” Fisk directed Spacek in that film, which garnered her a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination. He followed with two other features, including Violets Are Blue (1986), also with Spacek, and some television directing.Still, directing required him to give up a lot. “I found that I love my time off. I love design because I can go in and create worlds, and then when the film’s over I go back to our farm and have some time off. When we had children, that became more important,” he says. Directing, he found, ultimately consumed too much of his time.Malick’s directorial return with The Thin Red Line in 1998 also marked Fisk’s art department homecoming after years spent directing. He was especially excited to be production designer on Malick’s The New World (2005), where he recreated the first successful English colony in North America—in Virginia, where Fisk happens to live. “The remnants of the fort were just discovered in 1996, and those discoveries had never been represented in a film. It became a detective project—looking at the writings from the period and trying to [distinguish the] glowing accounts to attract people to Virginia from which statements were real.”Malick, known for a free-flowing style where what was planned yesterday may not be what is shot today, continually rewrote or changed the placement of scenes. This kept actors and crew on their toes. “The only way that I can work with Terry is to complete the sets before we start shooting so that he can shoot anywhere, because there is no controlling him,” says Fisk. “Even if he tells you that he won’t see something, sometimes he’ll surprise you. There was one scene where we had an unfinished structure. I said, ‘Terry you won’t shoot it, will you?’ He says, ‘No, no.’ I put on an orange coat and stood in front of it. He was shooting, going around with the handheld camera and suddenly he comes up and there I am, standing in an orange coat. It wasn’t right for 1607. He started laughing because he knew he promised me we wouldn’t see it. We have a good relationship, but I try to have everything right for him so he doesn’t have any restrictions in what he can see.”Fisk’s latest project is with director Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood, a character-based, turn-of the century California oil story. Reading books on how the oil business operated physically, he is building a town with steel and wooden oil derricks.Fisk’s career path may yet change again. “Our youngest daughter is 17,” he says. “She will be going to art school next year. We’ll have a new freedom that reminds me of what we had 24 years ago.” He says he might even get back into directing a film with Spacek and their older daughter, who is a musician and actress. “We talk about it often,” he admits. “We’d love to. We’ve got enough talent in the family.”

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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